Copyright and Fair Use Issues in Online Education

There are three main legal issues that can cause trouble in online educational programs: ownership issues, copyright issues, and issues of harassment and defamation. Each of these issues also pertains to the face-to-face classroom setting but requires a fresh perspective when applied to distance education.

Consider the following scenario:
An economics professor on your campus records a program from MSNBC on her DVD recorder at home and then shows the film to her online economics class over your college broadcast network. Is this acceptable? To further help the students, she copies several articles off the Internet from The Economist and BusinessWeek magazines and places them on her college Web page.

Is this copyright infringement or does it fall under the heading of “fair use”?

This is an extremely common problem at many colleges across the United States, because faculty have grown to believe that everything they do in a classroom is considered to be fair use as long as it is for educational purposes. This view seems to have extended to the online arena as well, which is more exposed to the public. This merely increases the likelihood that violators will be caught.

To avoid copyright problems in both online and face-to-face classes, the first key is to stick within what are called “fair use” guidelines. A common test that courts often apply to determine if infringement has occurred is to consider whether you are reproducing material (photocopying articles, scanning images, or recording a show and posting it on your website) merely to avoid purchasing the work. This is the most important component of the “Fair Use Four-Part Test.” This is the most significant factor that courts will consider in determining infringement.

Many faculty members lament the fact that books are so expensive and wonder if they can just copy parts of them and post them online for students. Of course, if you are doing that to avoid having your students purchase the work, then you are taking away market and income from that author. If that is the case, you are violating fair use.

In addition, many colleges and universities throughout the United States no longer indemnify a professor or administrator who is sued for a copyright violation. What that means is the college is not going to be standing behind you, with its legal team supporting you, if you are named in a legal action. If you violate copyright laws, you are going to be trudging into court on your own to defend yourself against a lawsuit. You will be hiring your own attorney to do so. This is not just career breaking, but it can destroy your personal finances as well.

Excerpted from What Distance Ed Administrators Must Know About the Law, a Magna white paper. Learn more about this valuable resource »